The Volokh Conspiracy

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Singular "They" in Briefs: Best Avoided


I've often seen students use the singular "they" in briefs, e.g.,

Even a public-figure libel plaintiff can prevail if they show a defendant acted with 'actual malice' ….

I don't think this is grammatically wrong; indeed, it has long been common in English literature. But it can annoy some readers, and distract others; and even if they are wrong in thinking it's wrong, you'll be less effective at persuading them. Sometimes you might feel some ethical obligation to put things in a particular way, even if it annoys or distracts some readers, but all else being equal, you should probably avoid that.

What are the alternatives? The generic "he" was once common, but now it annoys or distracts some readers. A generic "she" annoys or distracts others. "He or she" seems bureaucratese and fussy, especially because it will end up being repeated.

Usually, though, there's a simple solution: Make the antecedent plural, e.g.,

Even public-figure libel plaintiffs can prevail if they show a defendant acted with 'actual malice' ….

That should generally convey your point clearly and smoothly, with the readers focusing on your message and not your pronouns. In some situations, pluralizing things this way won't work; but usually it will.

And count your blessings that English doesn't have gendered "they."